Birks, Thomas Rawson (DNB00)
BIRKS, THOMAS RAWSON (1810–1883), theologian and controversialist, was born on 28 Sept. 1810 at Staveley in Derbyshire. His father was a tenant farmer under the Duke of Devonshire. The family being nonconformists, young Birks was educated first at Chesterfield and then at the Dissenting College at Mill Hill. Funds were provided to send him to Cambridge. He won a sizarship and a scholarship at Trinity, and in his third year gained the chief English declamation prize. As the holder of this prize he delivered the customary oration in the college hall. The subject chosen was 'Mathematical and Moral Certainty,' and, in a letter to Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Whewell spoke very highly of this oration. In January 1834 Birks came out as second wrangler and second Smith's prizeman.
Having joined the church of England on leaving the university, Birks settled at Watton as tutor and then curate to the Rev. Edward Bickersteth [q. v.] During his stay there he devoted much time to the study of the prophetic scriptures, and took the affirmative side in the warm controversy which arose on the subject of the premillennial theory of the Lord's return. In 1843-4 Birks won the Seatonian prize for the best English poem at Trinity. Some years before he had been elected a fellow of his college. He ardently engaged in many religious controversies, and one of these, on the future of the lost, led to the severance of private friendships and religious connections. In his views on this subject he was equally opposed to the universalists and the annihilationists. In the year 1844 Birks married Miss Bickersteth, the daughter of his friend, and accepted the living of Kelshall in Hertfordshire.
In 1850 Birks published his edition of Paley's 'Horse Paulinae,' with notes and a supplementary treatise entitled ' Horæ Apostolicæ.' Two years later the work was followed by 'Horæ Evangelicæ,' and in 1853 appeared his 'Modern Rationalism' and 'The Inspiration of the Scriptures.' In 1856 Birks lost his wife, and the severity of the affliction caused the suspension of his literary labours for several years.
The year 1861, however, witnessed the publication of another of his more important works, 'The Bible and Modern Thought,' at the request of the committee of the Religious Tract Society. The author subsequently enlarged his work by a series of notes on the evidential school of theology, the limits of religious thought, the Bible and ancient Egypt, the human element in Scripture, and Genesis and geology.
Birks left Kelshall in 1864, and in 1866 accepted the important charge of Trinity Church, Cambridge. In the latter year he married a second time. By his first marriage he had eight children, one of whom, his eldest son, also attained distinction, succeeding him as a fellow of Trinity. At the time of the disestablishment of the Irish church Birks came forward with a lengthy treatise on 'Church and State,' which was an elaboration of a treatise written thirty years before, and now republished as bearing upon the ecclesiastical change proposed by Mr. Gladstone and carried into effect by parliament. Birks was installed honorary canon of Ely Cathedral in 1871, and in 1872, on the death of the Rev. Frederick Denison Maurice, he was elected professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge. This appointment led to a stormy controversy. It was regarded as a retrograde step by the large body of liberal thinkers who sympathised with the views of Mr. Maurice. While pastor at Cambridge, Birks laboured assiduously in giving religious instruction to the undergraduates, to older members of the university, and also to the residents in the town. In the year of his appointment he published his ‘Scripture Doctrine of Creation’ and ‘The Philosophy of Human Responsibility,' His inaugural lecture as professor of moral philosophy was on ‘The Present Importance of Moral Science.' In 1873 appeared his ‘First Principles of Moral Science,’ being a course of lectures delivered during his professorship. This work was followed in 1874 by 'Modern Utilitarianism,’ in which the systems of Paley, Bentham, and Mill were examined and compared. In 1876 Birks delivered the annual address to the Victoria Institute, his subject being ‘The Uncertainties of Modern Physical Science.’ Birks published in 1876 his work on ‘Modern Physical Fatalism and the Doctrine of Evolution’ It contained the substance of a course of lectures devoted to the examination of the philosophy unfolded in Mr. Herbert Spencer's ‘First Principles,' Birks held the views expressed by Mr. Spencer ‘to be radically unsound, full of logical inconsistency and contradiction, and flatly opposed to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and even the very existence of moral science.' To the strictures upon his ‘First Principles’ Mr. Spencer replied at length, and this led to the republication, in 1882, of Birks’s treatise, with an introduction by Dr. Pritchard, F.R.S., Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford, in which; Mr. Spencer's rejoinder was dealt with, and the original arguments of Birks illustrated and further explained.
Birks resigned the vicarage of Trinity in 1877, and in the same year published a volume on ‘Manuscript Evidence in the Text of the New Testament,' being an endeavour to bring ‘mathematical reasoning to bear on the probable value of the manuscripts of different, with a general inference in favour of the high wide of the cursive manuscripts as a class.’ In the same year Birks issued his ‘Supernatural Revelation,’ being an answer to a work on ‘Supernatural Religion,’ which had given rise to much criticism. Birks’s treatise was republished at a later period by Professor Pritchard, with a reply to objections that had been urged against it.
Early in 1875 Birks suffered from a paralytic seizure, and this was followed by a second stroke in 1877. He still took a deep interest in questions of the day, and was able to dictate various works, pamphlets, and letters bearing upon these questions. In April 1880, while residing in the New Forest, he was stricken for a third time, and fatally, with paralysis. He was conveyed home to Cambridge, where he lingered for three years, being incapacitated for intellectual effort. He died on 19 July 1883.
Birks was for twenty-one years honorary secretary to the Evangelical Alliance. He was an examiner for the theological examination at Cambridge in 1867 and 1868, and was a member of the board of theological studies. He took an active part in all university affairs during his connection with Cambridge, was appointed to preach the Ramsden sermon in 1867, and was frequently a select preacher before the university. In addition to the works named in the course of this article, Birks was the author of a considerable number of treatises on prophecy and other subjects connected with the older revelation, as well as of a ‘Memoir of the Rev. Edward Bickersteth.'
[The works of Professor Birks; Record, 27 July 1883; Men of the Time (llth edition); Times, 23 July 1883; Guardian, 25 July 1883.]